Gift List: "Midnight" is the ideal horse book for children (and adults)

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Midnight: A True Story of Loyalty in World War I

Author: Mark Greenwood
Illustrator: Frané Lessac
Price: $16.99
ISBN: 0763674664 / 9780763674663
Details: Hardcover 9 5/8" x 10 5/8", 32 pages color
Published: 2014 in Australia, 2015 in USA (Candlewick Press)

If there’s a real-life horse adventure on your wish list this holiday season, head to the children’s department at your local bookstore. Ask for Midnight. Tell her I sent you.

It’s been years since I found a children’s horse story that I could so wholeheartedly embrace and recommend. Molly the Pony may have been the last. Molly and Midnight would get along just fine.

Let’s begin this review by assuring anyone reticent about buying a book about war for a child. While much of this book takes place in the Middle East campaign of British and Australian cavalry forces during World War I, the story is told through the lens of the horse-human bond and the wonderful primitive-style illustrations help deflect the gritty realism of battle or death.

When the book ends, children will remember the relationship between Midnight and Guy, her owner. They will be awed by the final result of Guy’s refusal to be separated from his horse, and their date with destiny in what was one of the last successful horse cavalry charges in the history of warfare.

One reason I liked this book so much is because it is set so far from the USA and what we traditionally know about horses in World War I, much of it demonstrated so beautifully by the book, play and film War Horse. But Joey and Albert were apart for most of the war on the western front in France. The push of the story is Albert’s quest to find his horse and bring him home.

“War Horse” is a lovely bit of fiction, an allegory for thousands of British horses who headed to war. Midnight is a true story.

Here's the real Guy Haydon on his mare, Midnight, during World War I. (Courtesy, Haydon Stud)

Here's the real Guy Haydon on his mare, Midnight, during World War I. (Courtesy, Haydon Stud)

First, we are treated to a horse breeding and raising story set in rural New South Wales in Australia. Second, we learn that the Australian “Light Horse” regiments of cavalry were comprised of men who volunteered with their own horses, or horses lent to them. Third, we learn that the ships full of Australian horses headed to the Middle East campaign were bound for Egypt, while the ships full of the cavalrymen headed to Turkey, where they would fight in the horrible battle of Gallipoli.

When the surviving cavalrymen were re-united with the Australian horses months later, there was no guarantee that they would be re-assigned their own horses. Guy Hardon was not paired with Midnight, and he had to search for her and plead to ride her again.

When the Australians set off to trek across the desert, the men knew they had to take good care of their horses, who often went for 36 hours without water, and who had no hay to eat, only solid grain. And when the Light Horse successfully leaped over the ditches at Beersheba, they would go down in history as one of the best mounted units ever mustered.

For one horse and rider, that charge would be their last. But how Midnight and Guy went down, together, is one of the most moving stories in all the tales--true and fictional--of war horses of all times.

Children who know a little bit about horses and their care can learn more from this book, such as the problems that a horse would face if its saddle wasn't taken off for a week. In the historical document, readers will see Midnight and Guy in competition and read about how they defeated the British cavalry riders in three-of-three equestrian tests in the "Desert Olympics" during preparations for the march.

Another reason to love Midnight is that it can give parents and teachers a chance to put the current Middle East tensions in perspective. In 1916, there was no Israel. The battles at Gallipoli were fought against Turkey, a nation often in the news today. The Australian cavalry’s ultimate goal was to free Damascus, the capital of embattled (then and now) Syria.

Midnight's story is not just a children's book and not just an historical archive. Midnight and Guy also live on in Australia's magnificent 2014 award-winning documentary film about that country's Waler breed of home-breds, Great War Horses. Here's a preview:

Watch for more about the film on The Jurga Report in 2016.

Most sadly, Haydon Stud documented the tragedy of other Light Horse Haydon family members who had to leave their home-bred horses behind in the desert at the end of the war.

Make a place for Midnight on your bookshelf this holiday season. You won't forget her, and we need to make sure that history never does, either.

Read about the inspiring real-life war horse Midnight, and the making of the children's book about her, in the Australian Stock Horse Society's journal.